The government is facing a difficult dilemma over its controversial anti-extremism program called Prevent.
The news that the suspect held in custody for the killing of Congressman Sir David Amess had previously been referred to this scheme has strengthened the demands for review and made it “more robust”.
What is the point, some argue, in referring people to this £ 40 million a year program – which aims to prevent people from becoming terrorists or supporting them – if they can then continue to commit murder?
But others argue that reinforcing it with greater involvement of police and MI5 officers will simply scare the same people who currently agree to take part in its voluntary deradicalization course, the Channel program.
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Hugo Macpherson, who has worked in the prevention of terrorism in the UK and Europe for 13 years, says: “It is really important that you remain independent of law enforcement, that you operate in the pre-criminal space.”
Prevention has always been the most difficult and controversial strand of the government’s multifaceted counter-terrorism strategy, originally established by Tony Blair’s government under the title Contest.
It aims to address the problem “upstream” by confronting the violent ideology that pushes people towards terrorism, removing them from it before they commit a crime.
The other strands are simple by comparison. Chasing is the goal: chasing known terrorists. Protect is reinforcing potential targets against an attack and Prepare is contingency planning for when and if an attack is overcome.
Prevent has long been criticized by some Muslim community activists who claim it unfairly demonizes and profiles Muslims.
And it is not only Muslim figures who feel it. The program relies on a wide range of people in society – teachers, municipal employees, NHS employees – to perform their “civic duty” by reporting the suspicious views or behavior of a radical individual to the Home Office.
This leads to allegations of snooping and a surveillance company. A committee decides whether or not to refer that person to the program and, in severe cases, to the Channel’s mentoring program.
Attendance is not mandatory and as a rule the name and personal details of the person are not transmitted to MI5, the Security Service, unless it is feared that at the end of the course the intervention would not have succeeded in removing them from extremism.
In the case of the suspect being detained in connection with Sir David’s death on Friday, Whitehall officials say his name was not on any of their checklists.
Was it an oversight? Not with the current system, no. So should this change now, as some anti-extremism think tanks are asking?
This is unlikely to be greeted by an overloaded MI5 that is already tackling over 600 active investigations. The last thing MI5 would need is to add hundreds more names to its list of more than 3,000 active “topics of interest”, occupying considerable resources, when most, if not all, of those names may turn out to be harmless.
The other major criticism currently being leveled at Prevent is that it has been too “soft” towards potential Islamist radicals.
Dr Rakib Ehsan, a British Muslim academic with the Henry Jackson Society think tank, says: “The mismatch in resources between extremist ideologies represents an all-too-real prospect for Islamic extremists who pose a significant security risk by not being sufficiently monitored. by public authorities “.
Yet Prevent, its supporters say, had an unfairly bad press.
As part of the program, says the Ministry of the Interior, since 2012 more than 1,000 individuals at risk have been followed through the Channel program. Since 2015, around 100 children protected by the courts have been prevented from being taken to conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.
“One of our successes that people forget is when a group of would-be jihadists in Birmingham followed the program, changed their minds and deliberately burned air tickets to the conflict zone,” says Hugo Macpherson.
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